Styling: Nicholas Wasserberger
Models: Nicholas Wasserberger. Sarah Rowe. Kim Darling
T-shirts: Kim Darling
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.
Styling: Nicholas Wasserberger
Models: Nicholas Wasserberger. Sarah Rowe. Kim Darling
T-shirts: Kim Darling
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.
It all started with a knee injury. In 2006, things for the now-24-year-old Jenna Johnson came to a screeching halt when the soccer enthusiast was subjected to multiple surgeries to repair her ACL. While she healed, the Sioux City, Iowa, native discovered her passion for painting.
“It was the making of something from nothing that grabbed me,” she explains.
In 2001, Johnson and her family moved to Elkhorn for a job opportunity. She says that, although she received a quality education and played a multitude of sports, she always felt like something was missing.
“It was exactly what you’d imagine it to be like,” Johnson says. “I had numerous friends. I felt safe, but in a way I also felt boxed in, possibly due to the lack of diversity.”
When Johnson graduated from Elkhorn South High School in 2012, the self-taught artist moved east and got a studio at Hot Shops downtown, a goal she’d had since she was a teenager.
“I participated in a high school show that is held there once a year,” she explains. “During our tour, I’d get lost in the building and imagine what it would be like to be an artist there. Now that I have been a resident for almost six years, Hot Shops has given me much wisdom about the art community. With the knowledge of my fellow artists, I’ve gained the skills necessary to keep my business going.”
Over the years, those fellow artists have taught her how to build and stretch a canvas, and explain, sell, and critique her work. She’s also learned imperative lessons about success and failure, so it’s not surprising Johnson’s current focus is people, done in an unconventional mustardy yellow and shades of violet.
She initially chose that shade of yellow because she wanted to make an ugly painting to “get it out of her system.” But once she saw it next to the violet, her imagination exploded. The result was a new experience for her.
“People are my favorite right now,” she says. “I hate painting faces, but I love how the two colors simplify the subject. I am infatuated with these two colored portraits [in particular]. All [of them] are large so it is fun to step up to one and stare into the subject’s soul.”
“Ask me this again in a year, I’m sure it will change,” she adds.
Although she has other hobbies like traveling, hiking, and yoga, Johnson can’t picture her life without working as an artist.
“I ask myself this question at least once a week and the answer is always the same—I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe cut hair? It terrifies me to imagine doing anything but painting.”
Johnson’s permanent installations can be found throughout Omaha at businesses such as TD Ameritrade (commissioned while she was still in high school) and LinkedIn. Living paycheck to paycheck, she appreciates each and every time someone buys her work.
“It feels wonderful,” she says. “Since this is my only job, any sale is a good sale.”
Down the line, Johnson envisions her art breaking out of the Omaha scene, but she insists, “If I am still happily painting in the future, I have succeeded.”
Visit jennajart.com for more information about the artist.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter.
The cover of the 2018 FamilyGuide summer camp edition was conceptualized as an image that would grab the attention of both parents and children using vibrant colors and a singular theme.
This being summer camp, I used geometric shapes in the composition: circles for the sun; triangles for trees; and an intricate campfire scene with a tent, fire, and traditional summer camp sign with arrows pointing to the articles within.
I first created the cover in Adobe Illustrator as a digital mock-up to size, and from there selected different felt materials for the actual shapes to cut out. Thanks to our art director, Matt Wieczorek, and photograper, Bill Sitzmann, we were able to exaggerate the shadows of the shapes and give the cover a real 3-D effect that conveyed the feel and texture of felt on glossy printed paper.
This cover redesign departs from the static look (recurring icons with different cover colors) found in previous FamilyGuide covers. We plan to carry stylistic elements of this cover redesign through the rest of the year’s editions of FamilyGuide.
Find the new edition of FamilyGuide for free at select locations around town (omahamagazine.com/locations).
Costa Rican fine artist Elisa Morera Benn and her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn (a professor in the Creighton School of Dentistry), are patrons of the arts. Their stylish home located near Leavenworth Street features great views of downtown Omaha and a vast array of compelling works of art—a mix of hers and others.
Benn’s surrealistic artworks are also showcased around town at places like the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, the Jewish Community Center, and Hot Shops Art Center. Benn—whose work has been featured at the Louvre in Paris—studied with art masters in Costa Rica and has been a professional artist for over 35 years. A popular theme of her work is children and women who have overcome obstacles.
Just off Benn’s home art studio in the basement, however, is a guest room that features a fully functional and wholly different type of art. Benn transformed the back of an ordinary bookshelf into a pleasing, extraordinary work of art—a portal, if you wish, to other lands.
The bookshelf divided the guest room that also includes a small office area. So, Benn painted the back into the style of a mythical Moroccan door to transform it into an “attractive, surrealistic gateway for the guest.” Her inspiration? The royal arches and neon lights of Morocco. “I love the Morocco style. I have never been in this country, but it is on my bucket list,” she says.
The project took her about three days and cost less than $75. She was inspired to create the door after finding the Moroccan handles on sale at a craft store. Her array of tools also included acrylic paint, masking tape, dimensional texture acrylic paint, some chalk, glass tiles, flat and clear glass gems, flat and round metal pieces, and a ruler.
She first Googled examples of Moroccan doors, then she chose her favorite model. “I transferred the design to the back of the bookcase, measured it with a ruler, and then marked it with chalk.” She then put masking tape around the border to prepare for painting. She used Moroccan blue, brown, white, and black. After painting with the plain colors, Benn used a dimensional fabric paint for clothes called “Tulip Slip Black” to paint the flowers and symbols. “This gives you an acrylic texture,” she says.
Benn then finished by adding the handles, round metal, flat and clear glass gems, and glass tiles. “The glass gives you the sensation of looking at a wall with a nice Moroccan door.”
Through her handiwork, Benn created a passageway that often surprises and delights visitors to the Benns’ home. The creative door serves as a continual reminder of her wish to travel to Morocco one day and gives her guests something nice to look at. “As an artist, I love the intervention of making artistic things with normal pieces. Blending new things with old things is part of my inspiration.”
Visit the artist’s website at artistamorera.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.
Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke fondly remembers several magazine covers from his 35 years in the local magazine business. But he is particularly fond of the November/December 1993 issue—a poster of which hangs on his office wall. The cover features a beautiful model wearing a Russian fur hat and coat. The lead story? “Revelations on Russia.”
Here’s the behind-the-scenes scoop: Lemke and the author of the cover story, Sandy Stahlstein, had traveled to Russia over the summer. While abroad in the land of “czars, caviar, and communism,” Lemke had proposed to the writer. And she said, “Yes.”
For many years, covers of Omaha Magazine featured one person’s portrait. Often it was someone whom the public could easily identify and read about in the magazine’s inside pages. Five years ago, the 30th anniversary issue changed that idea like a light bulb popping over Lemke’s head.
“I was talked into being the cover subject by Bill Sitzmann, who told me that readers want to know the faces behind the names in business, and that includes our business,” Lemke says.
That was one of the first conceptual covers of Omaha Magazine. Lemke liked the idea so much, he and the creative team began creating unique covers for subsequent publications.
As lead photographer, Sitzmann saw concept covers as a way to stand out from the crowd, also noting that his skill set suited him to the work. The covers have won awards, inspired and intrigued the viewer, and brought an unparalleled feel to the publication.
“The cover that has won the most awards was the black-on-black cover with the spot gloss on it,” Lemke says of 2014’s Best of Omaha issue. The spot gloss varnish meant that while nearly the entire cover was black, there were words on the cover that were glossy while the majority of the cover was matte. “You had to move the cover around under a light source to see the words, but the cover really engaged the reader.”
Conceptual covers also enable Omaha Magazine to feature Omaha stars in uncommon ways. One of Sitzmann’s favorite covers is the July/August 2014 issue featuring Chuck Hagel.
“I got that done in two days,” Sitzmann says. “I flew to New York and drove straight to D.C. with all my gear. I shot at the Pentagon, spent the night at a friend’s house in New York, and flew back to Omaha the next day.”
He also enjoyed shooting the July/August 2015 cover with Keystone Pipeline activist Jane Kleeb holding a black snake and covered in chocolate syrup to emulate oil.
“She was all in,” Sitzmann says. “I gave her the snake idea, and she went for it.”
Other favorite conceptual covers include Mayor Jean Stothert on the September/October 2013 issue featuring the headline “Leading in a Man’s World” (with her head Photoshopped above a man’s hairy arms) and the September/October 2017 issue’s double cover on indigenous language revitalization (tribal elders translated text into the Omaha, or Umoⁿhoⁿ, language for the front with equivalent English text on the inside).
Bringing together these covers involves strategic meetings of the minds of everyone on the creative and editorial team.
“I am proud that each cover is a team approach between edit, photography, and graphics as to the selection and the composition of the design,” Lemke says. “Not everyone agrees all the time, but we are able to respect one another’s opinions, and I think most people walk away from the table saying, ‘Yes, that will work.’”
See the magazine’s current staff at http://omahamagazine.com/articles/35-years-on-staff/
Read Omaha Magazine at omahamagazine.com. Subscribe to support community journalism.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
This is the first in a series on artists in residency at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
Christy Chan was at the tail end of her residency when we spoke; it started Sept. 20 and ended Nov. 17. The theme was Art, Empathy, and Ethos. The artist and storyteller is now back home in Oakland, California.
Christy Chan says she enjoys the view from her room at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, even though it faces the train tracks downtown.
“I actually really like it,” she says. “I think trains are romantic.”
Chan lived at the Bemis for two months in the fall while doing a residency there. She is an interdisciplinary artist who enjoys telling stories through video, audio, performance, and installations. The Bemis residency offers her a chance to work on her latest project and to do all the things she doesn’t necessarily get to focus on at home. Perhaps most importantly, it provides her a unique experience.
“I was really intrigued to come here, because I’ve lived on two coasts, I’ve lived abroad, but I’ve seen more of other countries than I have of this country,” she says.
Aside from her general curiosity, Chan says she also felt that living in a time when politics are so polarizing, it was important to see more of the country.
“Because I do work about class and race and power, specifically in the United States, it’s important that I see more of it…I think it’s easy for different groups of people, different areas of the U.S., to be ‘cartoonized,’” she says, adding that this is something that happens all over the world and is not unique to this country.
She was familiar with the Bemis residency program and even applied four years ago. This time around, she applied because the themes seemed like a perfect fit.
Chan’s experience with the themed residency exemplifies the goal of the program. She says she enjoys meeting all the artists. The fact that the theme is empathy and they all lay claim to that attachment in their work gave them a lot to talk about.
Chan says a residency gives her the opportunity to step out of the day-to-day routine of her nine-to-five job as a freelance film producer. “The thing I love about residencies is going somewhere and having a natural response to the environment and stumbling onto things that I become curious about,” she says. “I think that really feeds my work.”
Though she’s working on multiple projects at the Bemis, she is developing a project called “Everybody Eats Lunch.”
“I guess most artists would call it a social practice project, to use fancy words, but I just call it a community art project.”
Chan’s parents were Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant in her hometown in Virginia. She says she grew up seeing how coming together for a meal breaks down walls. “It just does,” she says. “Gathering and eating and talking is just part of our human nature.”
She says the plan is to have the project open to anyone and everyone who wants to participate.
Chan launched the project here, when she met with two Omahans. She also has friends in Oakland and New York who are participating, but hopes to see it spread far beyond that. “Right now, it’s sort of unfolding in this organic way,” she says.
For her two lunches here, she says Block 16 agreed to sponsor them. Come spring, there will be an official website where people can view those lunches and more.
She says the idea is to record the lunch conversation, and, if you’re comfortable doing so, taking a picture with each other. If not, she suggests taking a picture of the food you’re eating together. “No matter who we are or where we come from,” Chan says, “we all come together over food and conversation and that’s something we all share.”
“I really want to give people some freedom,” Chan says, “because it’s not about how good a photographer you are…it should be as easy as recording it on your phone. And the pictures don’t have to be great.” She says the idea is to collectively create a larger conversation that people will listen to, with one conversation leading to another.
“The premise of it is coming from the fact that we keep hearing that we live in this polarized time, how we’re all in these echo chambers,” Chan says, “not just because of digital media, but because we are on digital media all the time. That in itself is its own echo chamber.”
Chan says in an ideal world, you would be able to meet and talk to anyone, or just go deeper in a conversation with someone you already know.
“Politically, conversations are very polarized. I think there’s truth to that,” she says. “The idea of it is just to have lunch with somebody you wouldn’t normally have a conversation with, someone you consider a stranger and, for whatever reason, they at first seem too different from you, you haven’t had a connection…my intention is to give people an excuse to notice who’s around them and feel more connected to the people around them. It might be that someone has different political views or values. I think that will be interesting to see how these lunches go.”
She adds, “As all these really heated, political things are happening, it might feel good to be connecting in a way that’s just one-on-one.”
Chan says that for her, the project has made her think about all the people she sees everywhere, every day, who she hasn’t had a conversation with. “Everyone has a story,” she says, “everybody has something interesting about their life.”
“A lot of my work is really about humanizing who people are, sort of stripping away the easy categories—age, race, gender, sexuality, and just humanizing who we are,” she says. “So, I was really excited to come here.”
Chan says she’s been driving around Nebraska, even heading into South Dakota, looking at different points of interest. She finds homesteads particularly fascinating, and even planned a trip to Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back here again, so I want to see everything,” she says. “It’s been a really great place to do research and just feel inspired.”
As a storyteller, she says seeing the pioneer history and how that story was told interested her because a lot of her work revolves around that—storytelling and looking at the ways stories are scripted into our culture, whether they’re right or wrong. “A lot of my work is about using stories to subvert stories, or to create a fuller picture.”
Chan says that as she’s been exploring, she’s been making video and audio recordings. She has also read and reread a lot of books written about and set in the Midwest, from graphic novels, to autobiographies of Native Americans who were forced to go to boarding schools and assimilate, and even the Little House on the Prairie books.
“It’s felt really special to be here and see where a lot of things have happened in history.”
Chan says it’s important to look at things with a critical eye, as far as what are the narratives being told.
“Something that really blew my mind once I got out here and I was looking at where everything was, was realizing that where the Little House on the Prairie books, where those stories were set, were right next to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and that essentially those two stories are related,” she says. She finds it interesting how those two narratives
While she obviously made that connection before, she says she felt it in a much more visceral way when she saw the land, adding that it’s different to be able to read the book and then drive over to see the site.
“The fact that we have, not just the Little House books, but other books that create this narrative of what we think our history is,” she says, “but there’s this other narrative that’s also completely true, and they coexist together…
Besides traveling around Nebraska to get a sense of what this part of the country looks like, she’s also been visiting art museums and galleries to see how stories are represented there.
“I feel like sometimes seeds get planted while in residency, and then later on, they take form. I feel that might happen here as well,” she says. “When I’m in a new place and something’s pulling me to look at it, I just kind of try to trust that feeling…and go with it.”
All About the Residency
Holly Kranker is the residency project manager at the Bemis Center and has been with the program since 2013. She says themed residencies (like this year’s: Art, Empathy, and Ethos) are somewhat new to Bemis. This year marks the third one.
Kranker says two years ago, they started residency schedules, with the artists arriving and leaving at the same time, in a three-month block. In the past, the Bemis would have artists coming and going frequently, Kranker says, so they wanted to create more of a cohort.
Kranker says they wanted the residents to have a richer experience with the other artists they were meeting, “so it would be more fulfilling and give them a chance to really get to know each other.” She says residency blocks usually run from January to April, and May to August, with themed residencies developed by their artistic director lasting just two months—from September until November.
Previous themes were Future of Food, Sci-fi, and the Human Condition. For now, the future of the thematic residencies is unknown. However, their regular residencies will continue.
Kranker describes the process of getting a residency as a two-panel process, with three panelists each. The first panel is given criteria to look for, including whether it’s contemporary, consistent, aesthetic, and whether the artist has a true command and understanding of the work they’re doing.
During the second wave, they tally up the first panel reviews and the top-scoring applicants move on. She says the top applicants end up being roughly 20 percent of the pool.
“For a full residency year, we generally receive around 1,000 to 1,100 applications. Of those, we’re able to place roughly 36 artists in the residency per calendar year.” This is about 3 to 4 percent of the total pool.
Unfortunately, Kranker says they won’t have a thematic residency for 2018. However, that’s not to say they won’t ever have them again.
“Residencies are a living, breathing thing and we’re always evaluating and being responsive to what artists needs are in contemporary art.”
Visit bemiscenter.org to find out more about the residency program.
This article appears in the January/February 2018 edition of The Encounter.
Eli Rigatuso has a knack for uncovering beauty. He has been known to stop his car to investigate a particularly exceptional flower in somebody’s yard. He is a man who happily recounts being stopped in his tracks by an unexpected patch of wildflowers blooming through the underbrush.
This devotion to the smallest of details in life has characterized Rigatuso’s unique vision from a young age. “I was always fascinated by trying to capture little things,” he says of his earliest explorations of visual art as an 8-year-old with a camera. Prints of close-up photos of the wonders of everyday life, as seen through his personal lens, stacked up as he developed an artistic eye for the unexpected.
Walking into Rigatuso’s North Omaha home is like encountering a surprising glimpse of a lilac decorating your route to work. Now a professional photographer and videographer, his affinity for finding the unexpected extends to his growing collection of works from local artists.
Rigatuso welcomes visitors on a guided exploration of his 21-piece collection. “I’ve had people walk in here who have said the energy in this place is unbelievable,” he says, gesturing to the massive, awe-inspiring painting of a young man with soulful eyes that greets guests. Equally impressive is the drag queen painted on a plastic shower door that divides the living room and kitchen. Next to that are the elegant photos of the annual Metropolitan Community College Intertribal Powwow. The entire collection radiates a peaceful energy that’s undeniable.
Perhaps that energy is a hopefulness—a sense of truthfulness that can only be communicated through the work of local artists. Rigatuso uncovers art everywhere, and throughout his tour, he reiterates that his collection is defined by the profound story behind each piece. His voice trembles as he recounts the moment he first encountered the centerpiece of his collection—the young man with the soulful eyes. “It just literally took my breath away. The moment I saw it, I started crying.” He later learned the subject of the painting was a friend of the artist’s who had died of AIDS.
The artist, John Muñoz, was happy to negotiate with Rigatuso to ensure the work would be displayed in a home where it would be appreciated. When Rigatuso unrolled the painting after purchasing it, he was surprised to discover a second painting in the bundle. “I felt like it belonged to you, too,” explained the artist. Now hanging next to the young man in the living room, the painting is a complementary representation of a mother nurturing her children. It turns out, the paintings are both done on repurposed canvas posters from Muñoz’s day job at Whole Foods.
Many of Rigatuso’s pieces showcase repurposed materials. The collection also contains art done on particle board, a cabinet door, rescued pieces of discarded plastic, and sheet music. The artists run the gamut—a local coffee-shop owner, students, DJs, and everything in between. Each tells a unique story.
Another central piece to the collection features a mysterious woman in shades of blue hanging in the bedroom. It was painted by a stylist who cut Rigatuso’s hair on a day he spent celebrating his trans identity. On the mantle rests a painting of a fiery girl. It was purchased from a 20-year-old he happened to follow on social media. There is even photography from Rob Gilmer, owner of Council Bluffs’ famous home-cooking hot spot, Dixie Quicks.
Rigatuso’s diverse collection has got people talking. He has witnessed his home transform into a museum of Omaha artwork. “Everybody knows that I’ve got a lot of cool art. It’s kind of become a thing.”
But the private museum is about much more than buying art; it’s about cultivating community. “I want people to be encouraged by the fact that people see what they do as something that they want to own.” Rigatuso says. The real goal is “to be able to create an environment for people to come
and be a part of.”
This desire to create a welcoming space for all types of artists comes from a place of love rooted in Rigatuso’s own experience. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” he declares with a laugh. “For the first 50 years of my life, I was something that the rest of the world could accept, and I was dying inside. And when I came out as trans, I feel like I set myself free.”
By creating a space where even beginning artists can feel their vulnerability is welcomed, Rigatuso hopes to free them of any doubts about the value of their creativity. “I really think that when you’re engaged in art, we’re engaging a part of ourselves that is true vulnerability,” he says. “When you paint or you photograph or you capture something and you have the courage to share it, you’re actually sharing a piece of yourself. And that to me is huge.”
As his collection grows, Rigatuso says he hopes to curate an art show next spring or summer. “If anything, I want to leave a legacy of art.”
Visit elirigatuso.me to find out more.
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.
Clothing J.W. Anderson & Salvation Army
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Styled by Nicholas Wasserberger
Modeled by Charlie Gonzales
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.
As tattoos become increasingly normalized, it’s clear they’re no longer for burly bikers or hardened criminals alone. They’re popping up on soccer moms, young professionals, and people of all social classes. The stigma that once surrounded body art has lifted, making it much more acceptable than it was in the past. Omaha-based tattoo artist Patrick Oleson has watched the shift firsthand — even over the last few years. He’s tattooed all walks of life and finds it impossible to box them into one neat little package.
“Past generations may have a specific stereotype in mind when they imagine a ‘tattooed person,’” Oleson explains. “This no doubt stems from the early popularity of tattoos with Navy men, bikers, and prisoners. I’ve tattooed people from many different careers paths and social classes. Most of my larger multi-session work goes on young professionals.”
Self-expression and high caliber body art will never go out of style, he adds. “Society is rapidly changing its prejudice towards people with tattoos in a very positive way,” Oleson says.
Born in Anaheim Hills, California, the 35-year-old Oleson relocated to Okoboji, Iowa, where he enjoyed the sandy lake beaches and well-known tourist spots such as Arnolds Park Amusement Park for most of his formative years. Like other hopeless romantics, Oleson chased his future wife to Omaha where he’s been for the past four years.
“It seems that all the big things in life happen due to the people you choose to share them with,” he says. “Two of my best high school friends started tattooing in Omaha before I did. I moved to Omaha to pursue the woman I later married. When I got to Omaha, coincidentally I had multiple tattoo opportunities, so it all fell into place.”
Oleson apprenticed at Omega Point Tattoo Studio, and now has his own spot at the shop, but he’s always had an appreciation for the physical beauty of art on skin. He used to spend all of his vacation time in Omaha visiting friends and getting his own ink. Over the years, he’s learned there’s more to tattoos than some people realize.
“I have a better understanding of how tattoos are not only skin deep,” he says. “People also use them for self-identity, sentimentality, and their own definition of aesthetics.”
Omega Point Tattoo Studio, which he describes as “an art studio collective of serious artists who have the technical skills to apply amazing museum quality art to skin,” has provided him some incredible opportunities, especially when it comes to new technology.
“Since I started in 2013, we now have tattoo machines that run faster and smoother, and disposable needle cartridges that are safer to handle,” he explains. “I once used tracing paper and a pencil. Now, I use a self-built PC to create my designs and an iPad to trace my stencils. Technology has enhanced my tattoo game tremendously, and I’m excited about future advancements.”
One of Oleson’s specialities is photo hyperrealism, a technique intended to resemble a high-resolution photograph. It’s also one of the most challenging and inventive types of tattoos he creates.
“I welcome the challenge of photo hyperrealism,” he says. “I love capturing every subtle shift in tone and hue. When you get all the little details right, you end up with a 3D tattoo that pops off the skin. A good example of this is my Heath Ledger Joker piece. I wanted to find a frame of The Dark Knight that has never been tattooed before. I watched the Blu-ray movie, captured a unique HD screenshot and overlaid my own dynamic changes. I presented it to the client, who was
Armed with a background in traditional fine art from Iowa State University, Oleson and his desire to hone his craft coupled with his innate artistic ability makes him endlessly dedicated to his work. In fact, he admits he’s “obsessive,” and is currently focused on the academic side of art. >
< “I’m studying anatomy, color, and light theory, and becoming fluent in more digital art programs,” he says. “I’m continually adding more ‘tools’ to my ‘bag.’ I will do whatever it takes to get the right starting reference. I have used many of my own photographs in my tattoo work. I took the reference pictures for the husky dog, gorilla, sternum skull, and ‘peek-a-boo’ tattoos you see in my portfolio. For my flower-skull piece, I actually hand plucked every flower into a skull model just so I could take the photo for the reference.”
Even when he finds himself with a break from work, Oleson is thinking about improving his art — it’s essentially a job that’s never done.
“You know you love your job when you spend your free time in the same field as your career,” he says. “I’ve been learning 3D programs like ZBrush and KeyShot. Photo realism is amazing, but using rendering software to get photo-realistic results from a fictional object is next level stuff. I’m trying to be a pioneer in the tattoo industry.”
This article appears in the January/February 2018 edition of the Encounter.
For Artist Joe Nicholson, life after college wasn’t the masterpiece he had imagined. Fancy-schmancy art degree? Got it. Dead-end corporate job? Yep, got that too. Plenty of dough to make ends meet? Check. Despite all this, Nicholson kept putting his faith into black-and-white doodles he drew in his basement—just pen meeting paper, his savior in its infancy stage.
“College asked me to focus on one thing, painting,” Nicholson says. “I was tied down and didn’t even consider illustrating a possibility until after college. Once I did, everything changed.”
Now at age 32, Nicholson is a lot of things. Down on his luck isn’t one of them. Whether he’s creating his own illustrated books, freelancing for myriad local eateries, or preparing pieces to be shown in galleries, all his work manages to tell surreal and symbolic stories, with his whimsical and emotional style tying them all together.
Nicholson may be new to the professional illustration game, but this is hardly the first time he’s traded paintbrush for pencil and pen.
“Art has always been a part of who I am,” Nicholson says. “In preschool, I was the one who loved to spend his free time drawing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It made me different.”
Throughout his adolescent life, Nicholson continued his pursuit of all things art, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in painting from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While studying, he was exposed to different mediums but refocused fresh eys on art and putting brush to canvas.
“I wanted to grow up and become a painter of huge masterpieces that would hang in museums,” Nicholson says. “After I got out, I realized this path didn’t make sense for me. Then I got a corporate job and hated that, too.”
And so those aforementioned basement doodles became much more than a free-time hobby. After quitting his necktie-laden job, art began to be his focus once more, with his sketches acting as the start of full-blown illustrated storybooks.
His first two books, available for purchase on his online studio, exemplify his trademark style. Both are light on color but heavy on symbolism, exploring such themes as evolution versus creation and spiritual philosophy.
“I used to paint pictures that told stories,” Nicholson says. “I’m just taking that same idea and stretching it out into a more complicated, comprehensive thought. Each book takes an idea and spells it out, yet keeps it open for interpretation.”
One story, The Involuntary Life and Death of Seymour Finnegan, illustrates the adventures of a half-man, half-fish creature. Readers who look closely will see a fishhook on every page, a metaphor for the omnipresence of death and desire in any person’s life. His other illustrated story, The Birdhouse Man, shows the epic tale of a man with an empty birdhouse growing from his head. Totally normal reading, right? Totally not.
However, it’s this daring uniqueness in his work that’s led to Nicholson’s success. Both books were chosen for display in a 2016 exhibition at KANEKO.
“When we first met Joe, it became clear that art is truly his life’s pursuit,” says Chris Hochstetler, KANEKO’s executive director. “I would describe him as a contemporary philosopher who asks the same very deep and nagging questions that we all yearn to know, but through the depth of art.”
Beyond illustrated books, Nicholson uses his talents to help businesses tell their brand stories. One such job came from the most unlikely of places—with hands in suds and grime, washing dishes for the Boiler Room. Proof that even in the art world, it’s all about connections. His friendship with sous chef A.J. Swanda blossomed into a paying gig. Last year, Swanda opened his own restaurant, Ugly Duck, and commissioned his old pal to create a 250-square-foot mural and design T-shirts.
That’s not the only trendy midtown hangout that’s benefitted from Nicholson’s artistry. As a pseudo-reward for being a loyal regular, Nicholson was hired by Nite Owl bar to create wooden liquor menus and T-shirts with an old school Americana design. Yes, Nicholson knows food and drink very well, but he thought he was in over his head when hired by Definitive Vision to create a mural that doubles as one large color blindness test.
“I was really excited, then I thought, ‘Shit there’s a lot of science behind that,'” Nicholson says.
As with most things in Nicholson’s life, it all worked out, and the mural still lives on the waiting room wall.
For Nicholson, he’s playing the long game—planning next to create up to 10 more surreal storybooks. Even with his reborn love for illustrating, his preferred medium may change again. It’s not what he uses to create that drives him, rather the challenge to create. The struggle is real and very much wanted.
“With each new project, I push myself to do something that scares me,” Nicholson says. “It’s just fulfilling to now be at a place where my art isn’t just kept in the basement anymore.”
Visit joenicholsonstudios.com for more information.
This article published in the November/December 2017 edition of Encounter.